History & Policy Global Economics and History Forum: Brexit and food prices- the legacy of the Hungry Forties



The History and Policy Global Economics and Forum recently held our first event ‘Brexit and food prices: the legacy of the Hungry Forties’. Organised by Dr. Marc Palen the event received support from the AHRC and Economic History Society and included presentations by Anthony Howe (UEA), Sarah Richardson (Warwick), Lindsay Acqui (QMUL), and Geoff Tansey (Curator, Food Systems Academy). Across the sessions contributors considered how food prices and security has historically been a key issue in British politics historically, and we considered why it played little role in the recent EU referendum. Contributors also considered how historical thinking might inform contemporary policy challenges for post-Brexit Britain. You can read a Storify account of the event here.

History & Policy recorded a series of podcasts of the event: which are available here:

Tony Howe

Sarah Richardson

Lindsay Acqui

Geoff Tansey


Imagining Markets 3rd workshop report- Cambridge, April 2016

David Thackeray, University of Exeter



Churchill College, Cambridge was the venue for our final Imagining Markets workshop and we had a range of papers which considered various facets of how national economic identities have been culturally imagined. Another theme discussed at length was how markets are subject to the influence of a variety of external forces, limiting the actions of the entrepreneur. Attention focused particularly on the role of inter-governmental organisations, including those connected with the League of Nations and UN, the actions of the state, the politics of the citizen-consumer, and the role of international co-operation and competition in both the context of imperialism and decolonisation.


Hao Gao considered the contested ways in which the Chinese market was understood by the competing interests of the East India Company and free traders in the 1830s. Debate centred on the supposed ‘otherness’ of Chinese culture and whether or not the nation was peopled by ‘a highly commercial people’ amenable to the principles of free trade. Often the rhetoric of these debates was based on limited engagement with the everyday practices of British trade with China at the time.


Anthony Howe discussed the politics of growing monopolies, restrictions and exclusions in world trade in the nineteenth century, a period which is, perhaps paradoxically, often characterised as one of increasing globalisation. The paper considered how the growth of imperial inter-governmental organisations fostered the growth of subsidies. Prof. Howe then discussed the ways in which the growth of international trade bodies after 1900 challenged the growth of such practices.


Stephen Tufnell explored the politics of ‘inter-imperialism’, considering how southern Africa acted as a ‘borderland’ for American traders in the late nineteenth century. The United States took a prominent role in the development of mining on the Rand and gained influence in Transvaal business networks. However, it also took advantage of competing sovereignties in the region, evading imperial tariffs through trading via Portugese East Africa or re-exporting goods via the UK.


Marc-William Palen discussed the connections between free trade and international feminist peace activism in the early twentieth century. Particular attention focused on the importance of networks in understanding these connections. International links were facilitated by the development of the League of Nations and its affiliated organisations, as well as the adoption of free trade policies by leading civil society groups like the YWCA in the 1930s.


David Thackeray and Richard Toye explored the changing politics of international consumer activism in Britain between the 1940s and 1960s. The paper also considered how social surveys can help us understand the evolution of public attitudes towards Commonwealth and European trade. Consumer activism became noticeably more insular in focus after 1945 and attempts to promote the idea of ‘Buying British’ were challenged by the increasing globalisation of manufacture.


David Clayton discussed how Hong Kong was understood as a bastion of ‘Chinese capitalism’ from the 1950s onwards, attracting the interest of prominent neoliberals such as Keith Joseph. In turn, Hong Kong business bodies engaged in extensive PR activities in Britain to defend their activities and respond to the growth of protectionism by organisations such as the EEC. Such activities built on earlier UK-China networks, but in the context of the Cold War Hong Kong was now recast as a ‘Berlin of the East’.


Reports on the earlier workshops are available here and here. The AHRC Imagining Markets network has led to the development of the History & Policy Global Economics and History Forum. You can read about our aims and activities here.

History & Policy Global Economics and History Forum manifesto

David Thackeray, Marc-William Palen and Andrew Dilley

Cross-posted from History & Policy

This newly launched forum builds on the activities of the AHRC Imagining Markets network.



Britain and Global Trade: Past and Future

Regardless of the outcome of the EU referendum Britain currently faces a period of significant upheaval in its relations with key international markets. In 1975 when voters last went to the polls on the question of membership of the EEC, the EU’s forerunner, access to the European Common Market was presented by the victorious Yes campaign as being key to Britain’s economic prosperity.[1]

By contrast, today both supporters and opponents of continued EU membership stress the importance of wider global economic connections as Britain seeks to develop new markets. For example, whereas the relative importance of the Commonwealth in British trade had declined sharply in the 1950s and 1960s the significance of this grouping in world trade has grown significantly in recent years, as was acknowledged in a Foreign Affairs Committee report published in 2012.[2] After all, this region contains two key BRICS emerging markets (India and South Africa) and countries which proved to have some of the most resilient economies in the world in the face of the post-2008 economic downturn (Australia and Canada). During the last twenty years the combined GDP of the Commonwealth has doubled. Lord Howell has gone so far as to describe the Commonwealth market as ‘the soft power network of the future.’[3]

The importance of the Commonwealth link is a long-standing one. Indeed, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries British settler colonies looked to develop ‘Greater Britain’ as an economic unit as other leading powers turned towards economic nationalism. This idea of ‘Greater Britain’ would manifest itself again and again in the imperial preferential trade demands of the Fair Trade League (1881-1891), the United Empire Trade League (1891-1903), and Joseph Chamberlain’s Edwardian-era Tariff Reform League. As Robert Reid, the Defense Minister of Victoria, put it in 1894 to his imperial audience in London: ‘We in Australia want to trade as freely with Canada and South Africa as Kent trades with Surrey, or Surrey with Yorkshire. With the introduction of restrictive tariffs and with foreign countries taking away our trade in all directions, our cry must be “Britain for the British.”’[4] The appeal of Commonwealth trade might appear in a very different guise today, but its importance as an alternative economic integrative path for Britain’s global trade identity builds on deep historical roots.

Today’s changes within Britain’s global economic orientation are far from unprecedented. Rather, as this example illustrates, they build on historic ties. If we look at the case of China too, there are long-standing debates about the country’s enormous potential as a trade partner and several key British companies can trace their presence in the region back to the nineteenth century.[5] More broadly, contemporary policy discussions about trade treaties such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership have their roots in earlier debates about economic protectionism and national trade policies.[6] In other words, the history of global market integration can and should inform 21st-century debates.

Accessing expertise

As the UKTI’s China Business Guide makes clear, understanding the historical roots of trade relationships, and the cultural sensitivities they entail, is vital to those who wish to expand trade today.[7] However, as the recent AHRC-sponsored ‘Making History Work’ report indicates, the role of historical case-studies in policy-making varies between government institutions. Departments such as HM Treasury and FCO have developed historical seminar series, although in other cases outreach to academics can rely more on ad hoc informal networks.[8]

High staff turnover within departments (with 2 and 3 year placements common within the Civil Service Fast Stream) adds a further barrier to developing an ‘institutional memory’ for planning within departments.[9] More generally, the recent debate surrounding theHistory Manifesto has further stimulated international discussion about the role of historians in providing long-term perspectives on economic policy.[10]

Traditionally, there has been a disjuncture between the long lead times of academic publishing and the working practices of policy-makers who require rapid responses to the changing geopolitical environment. However, the growth of online publishing and digital venues like History & Policy provide new opportunities to challenge these divisions in working practices.

Aims of the forum

The History & Policy Global Economics and History Forum aims to:

– develop a network connecting people in academia, business, think-tanks, government and the public interested in historical and contemporary issues in the politics of global trade.

– offer a historicised perspective on current debates in British and global trade (such as relations with emerging markets and the role of trade in international conflict), providing a platform for both established scholars and early career researchers.

– connect policy-makers, business, academia and the public through social media, opinion articles, policy papers, policy workshops, consultations, and broadcast and print media.

– provide a forum for the discussion of trade policy past and present, building on the existing work of History & Policy, and connecting with initiatives in widening participation in policy making.


[1] Referendum on the European Community (Common Market), Why You Should Vote Yes (1975), text available athttp://www.harvard-digital.co.uk/euro/pamphlet.htm

[2] House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, The Role and Future of the Commonwealth (2012), pp. 8, 36-9http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmfaff/114/114.pdf

[3] Lord Howell, speech to 57th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference, July 2011,https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/commonwealth-the-soft-power-network-of-the-future ; See also House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence, Persuasion and Power in the Modern World (2014), pp. 13, 82-5http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201314/ldselect/ldsoftpower/150/150.pdf

[4] Reid quoted in Marc-William Palen, The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896 (Cambridge University Press, 2016), 224.

[5] See for example Peter Cain, ‘China, globalisation and the west: a British debate 1890-1914’, History & Policy (2009)http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/china-globalisation-and-the-west-a-british-debate-1890-1914

[6] Marc-William Palen, ‘The protectionist side of outsourcing’, History & Policy (2013) http://www.historyandpolicy.org/opinion-articles/articles/the-protectionist-side-of-outsourcing; Jim Tomlinson, ‘De-globalization and the search for economic security’, History & Policy (2011) http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/de-globalization-and-the-search-for-economic-security; David Thackeray, ‘History and future of British trade identities’, History & Policy (2014) http://www.historyandpolicy.org/opinion-articles/articles/history-and-future-of-british-trade-identities

[7] UKTI, China Business Guide (2012), p. 91.

[8] Catherine Haddon, Joe Devanny, Chales Forsdick and Andrew Thompson, What is the value of history in policymaking? (AHRC/ Institute for Government, 2015), p.4 http://careforthefuture.exeter.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Making-History-Work-Report-Final.pdf

[9] Ibid., pp. 10-12.

[10] Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto (2014), p. 12http://historymanifesto.cambridge.org/files/6114/1227/7857/historymanifesto.pdf; Similarly, see Hal Brands and Jeremi Suri, eds., The Power of the Past: History and Statecraft (2016).

Selling a new deal in Europe: what the Remain campaign can learn from 1975

David Thackeray

Cross posted from The Conversation

Just before the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community in 1975, Foreign Secretary James Callaghan worked hard to renegotiate the terms of British membership.

The concessions agreed back then are now widely seen as having had little lasting value – they related to imports of New Zealand dairy products and a complex correcting mechanism within the EEC budget. And yet, at the time they were popular. At the subsequent referendum, the UK voted two-to-one in favour of staying in the EEC.

While the context of the 1975 referendum was very different, the way the renegotiation terms were presented back then offers some valuable lessons for the people campaigning to keep Britain in the EU today.

However, the conduct of the campaign so far suggests that Prime Minister David Cameron may struggle to replicate Harold Wilson’s successful 1975 campaign to remain in the EEC in the face of opposition from his own government ministers.

Lukewarm on Europe

Opinion polls in early 1975 suggested that the electorate was lukewarm in its support for Europe. But the idea of renegotiating was popular, especially among Labour voters. It demonstrated that the EEC was willing to listen to Britain’s concerns and that Britain could lever authority within the European Community.

The renegotiation subsequently featured prominently in the manifesto of the Yes campaign. It was even mentioned at the top of the referendum ballot paper. Voters were instructed that “The government have announced the results of the renegotiation of the UK’s terms of the EC”. They were then asked: “do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)”.

By contrast, polling suggests that Cameron’s renegotiation has had little discernible impact on public attitudes to the EU. He spent weeks convincing fellow European leaders to allow the UK to limit welfare payments to EU migrants, among other measures, but voters appear unmoved.

Crucially, Harold Wilson was cautious in the way he presented the value of the new terms gained through renegotiation, in contrast to the more strident tone used by Cameron. Following the Labour cabinet’s majority agreement to support continued membership, Wilson stated in parliament:

I believe that our renegotiation objectives have been substantially though not completely achieved.

The Yes manifesto subsequently focused on the fact that many of Britain’s key historical trade partners in the Commonwealth supported its continued membership of the EEC, rather than promising significant change.

Wilson’s cautious approach arguably reflected the public mood of 1975. Support for European membership was tepid at best but it was often seen as better than the alternatives. Europe was often seen as a side issue to Britain’s domestic economic problems. Indeed, Europe did not often appear as a cover story in the national newspapers, even in the weeks leading up to the referendum vote.

Setting the tone

In 2016, the Remain camp has been widely criticised for the negative tone of its campaign. It has even been labelled Project Fear by supporters of Brexit. Yet there are parallels here with the approach of the successful Yes campaign in 1975, which also highlighted how Brexit would leave Britain in an uncertain geopolitical position.

Behind the scenes, civil servants involved in contingency planning for a potential Brexit often expressed anxiety about the logistics of leaving the European Community, for which there was no real precedent.

1975 indicates that focusing on the uncertainties of leaving the EU could be an effective strategy, not least as then, like now, supporters of Brexit are far from united in what alternative economic model they would follow.

And the Yes camps should acknowledge that the debate about the value of the concessions recently achieved by David Cameron is not likely to go away anytime soon. Michael Gove has already tried to question whether the package of reforms is legally binding, and Brexit backers are likely to continue to pick holes in the deal right up until the vote.

Wilson’s success in keeping Britain in Europe in 1975 suggests that it is essential for the Yes manifesto to acknowledge the limitations of the renegotiated terms as well as their value. In particular, as has been noted, it is important that each side provides independently prepared forecasts about how the different outcomes of the vote might affect immigration over the next ten years.

Planning for the Referendum and After: Lessons from 1975

David Thackeray
University of Exeter

Cross-posted from History & Policy

Forty-one years ago this month, James Callaghan finalised the renegotiation of Britain’s EEC membership at a Dublin meeting of the European Council. At the subsequent referendum the results were emphatic. The UK voted ‘yes’ to remaining in the EEC, the forerunner of today’s EU, by a two to one margin. Now with the EU referendum date set, this article considers the key differences between the 1975 and 2016 votes and the lessons of the 1975 renegotiation for policy-makers planning for the vote and its aftermath.

The first striking difference between the 1975 and 2016 referendums is the wording of the question which voters are being asked. In September David Cameron accepted a recommendation by the Electoral Commission that voters be directly asked whether they wish to stay in or leave the EU. This marks a radical departure from the precedent of the 1975 referendum. Significantly, opinion polls from the time suggested that many Britons were unhappy with various aspects of EEC membership, however they were willing to support continued membership on the terms proposed: ‘Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)’. Interestingly, the Cameron government’s original preferred wording for the upcoming referendum closely resembled that chosen by Harold Wilson in 1975.

The 1975 referendum demonstrates the importance of how the European question is framed in another way. Britain’s recent renegotiation of its terms of membership was mentioned at the top of the ballot paper and appears to have been a vote-winner. Gallup polls held before the renegotiation suggested willingness to support new terms of membership. The ‘yes’ majority widened significantly after the final renegotiation talks, with the Yes camp enjoying at least a sixteen per cent majority among decided voters for the final three months of the campaign. With supporters of continued EU membership enjoying no such advantage today, the renegotiation terms are likely to be a major area of contention over coming weeks and the Yes campaign will need to make a clear case for the value of the new terms.

Given the current uncertainty over the likely referendum result, contingency planning to meet the various outcomes will also be a key concern over coming months. Former cabinet secretary Gus O’ Donnell has recently commented that it is likely that civil servants are ‘mentally’ carrying out work in preparation for a potential British exit. Interestingly, the Cabinet Office, Treasury and Foreign Office were involved in substantial planning for a British exit in 1975. At the time, there was particular anxiety about how a British exit might affect the stability of the EEC. Civil servants expected that Denmark might join the UK in leaving and worried that bilateral relations with the Republic of Ireland would be complicated, potentially exacerbating problems in Northern Ireland.

Much of the contingency planning in 1975 focused on the complexities of leaving the EEC, for which there was no precedent. A Treasury memo produced at the time claimed that ‘a swift withdrawal is extraordinarily difficult to reconcile with the facts of international political life’. Some ministers publicly called for a withdrawal from the Community no later than 1 January 1976. And yet, behind the scenes, civil servants raised concerns about the viability of negotiating an early exit, which largely relied on the goodwill of other EEC members. If the January deadline was not met then Britain’s budget commitments of £200 million would likely have remained in place for another year. It was hoped that a treaty of withdrawal could be kept as short as possible, with more complex aspects of Britain’s future trading arrangements to be settled afterwards. Whilst Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon (2007) includes a clause for Member States to voluntarily withdraw from the EU, the growth of this organisation’s functions over recent decades means that the procedure for Brexit remains highly complex.

In many ways the stakes of voting on EU membership are higher now than in 1975. Indeed, the wording of the referendum ballot paper means that voters will be given a specific ‘in-out’ question on membership for the first time. Convincing voters to support the renegotiation terms may also be harder now. In 1975 Britain had only been a member of the EEC for two years and was economically ‘the sick man of Europe’, having been particularly badly hit by the oil price spike of 1973-74. Many voters were dissatisfied with aspects of Britain’s EEC membership but willing to endorse it for fear that exit would leave the UK internationally isolated. By contrast, developing links with emerging markets like China and India is today commonly seen as crucial to Britain’s future economic growth and the problems of the Eurozone have tempered the appeal of the EU as an economic unit.

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming referendum, and with the UK’s next presidency of the EU due to begin in July 2017, the nation’s shifting relationship with Europe is due to be a key matter of interest for some time to come.

Imagining Markets 3rd workshop, Cambridge, April 2016

Imagining Markets workshop

Recital Room, Churchill College, Cambridge- 7 April


10.30- Introductions and welcome

10.45- Hao Gao (Exeter)- Imagining the Chinese Market: British Merchants in China in the early 1830s

This paper will examine a significant debate on China and the Chinese market held within the British mercantile community in the early 1830s. Occurring in the years before the East India Company’s monopoly over China trade was abolished in 1834, this debate has received much less attention than the Macartney embassy and the rise of the opium trade. This paper will show that, in order to suit their own economic interests, supporters of the EIC and the ‘private English (free traders)’ presented rival images of China and the China trade. Although neither side was genuinely interested in discovering the ‘real’ China, this competition in image-building was crucial to Britain’s public opinion about and policy towards China in the era leading to the First Opium War.

11.20- Anthony Howe (UEA)- Serpents in the Economic Paradise: The Projects and Politics of Monopolies, Restrictions, and Exclusions in World Trade, c.1880-1940

11.55-12.15- Q+A

12.15-1.15- Lunch

1.15-1.50- Stephen Tufnell (Oxford)- Managing Inter-Imperial Markets: The United States in Southern African Borderlands, 1886-1902

This paper centres on the relationship between the American diaspora and the US consular service. Its focus is on the expansion of American trade in mine equipment, foodstuffs, and mules with the region and the attempts of the American diaspora to manage the industrial and commercial opportunities presented to them in these imperial borderlands. Using records from the United States’ consuls in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Kimberley, and the personal papers of leading American expatriates in the region, the paper reimagines the inter-imperial relationship between the British and American Empires in Southern Africa as one encapsulated by the concept of “borderlands”.

1.50-2.25- Marc-William Palen (Exeter)- The Feminist Vision of Free Trade Internationalism

This paper takes a long look at the international political economy of feminist peace activism. In doing so, it uncovers how early-twentieth-century feminist peace reformers counted among the most outspoken advocates for free trade internationalism, envisioning it as the necessary political economic foundation for obtaining world peace. This paper therefore uncovers the feminist roots of free trade and peace internationalism.

2.25-2.45- Q+A

2.45-3.00- Tea

3.00-3.35- David Thackeray and Richard Toye (Exeter)- From ‘Empire Shopping’ to ‘Buying British’: the public politics of consumption, 1945-63

This paper traces post-war shifts in the politics of consumption, showing how government and civil society groups articulated competing consumer appeals of Empire/Commonwealth preference, economic nationalism and Europeanism at a time of geo-political uncertainty. Addressing the debates surrounding the negotiation of the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947, the paper considers why this very important development – which involved scaling back imperial preference –generated little of the controversy that surrounded trade in the first decades of the twentieth century. It then explores how decolonization and the turn to Europe affected the discourse of the ‘citizen-consumer’. It is our hypothesis that the period as a whole was one in which the public representation of the idealised consumer emerged as a figure with loyalties which were now primarily national rather than imperial, or post-imperial.

3.35-4.10- David Clayton (York)- Defending Chinese Capitalism: Hong Kong Business Groups, the Colonial State and Commercial Public Relations, 1950-1970

During a period of extra-ordinarily rapid export-orientated industrialisation, trade associations and the colonial state in Hong Kong invested heavily in commercial propaganda. This was a defensive response to overseas criticism of Chinese business ethics, a strategy deployed by manufacturers in high-income markets in North-West Europe and North America unable to compete on price with exports of textiles, clothing and cheap consumer durables from Hong Kong. These activities were wasteful, a movement of resources from Hong Kong to public relations consultants, journalists and politicians overseas, and generated tensions between business elites and the colonial bureaucrats. This paper studies these economic and political effects and considers the cultural legacy of this propaganda war about a Chinese variant of capitalism. It focuses on how Hong Kong agencies protected the commercial reputation of a British colony in the UK, Hong Kong’s ‘home’ market.

4.10-4.30- Q&A

4.30- Concluding discussion and wrap-up.

Empire of Things

Cross-posted from Imperial and Global Forum Prof. Trentmann is on the advisory board for the Imagining Markets project.
The following are two excerpts from Prof Frank Trentmann‘s new book, Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First (UK: Allen Lane, 2016; USA: HarperCollins, 2016), cross-posted fromBirkbeckIn the book, Prof. Trentmann unfolds the extraordinary history that has shaped our material world, from late Ming China, Renaissance Italy and the British empire to the present. 

EmpireOfThings_MockUp_Front - Copy (2)Introduction

We live surrounded by things. A typical German owns 10,000 objects. In Los Angeles, a middle-class garage often no longer houses a car but several hundred boxes of stuff. The United Kingdom in 2013 was home to 6 billion items of clothing, roughly a hundred per adult; a quarter of these never leave the wardrobe. Of course, people always had things, and used them not only to survive but for ritual, display and fun. But the possessions in a pre-modern village or an indigenous tribe pale when placed next to the growing mountain of things in advanced societies like ours.

This change in accumulation involved a historic shift in humans’ relations with things. In contrast to the pre-modern village, where most goods were passed on and arrived as gifts or with the wedding trousseau, things in modern societies are mainly bought in the marketplace. And they pass through our lives more quickly.

In the last few hundred years, the acquisition, flow and use of things – in short, consumption – has become a defining feature of our lives. It would be a mistake to think people at any time have had a single identity, but there have been periods when certain roles have been dominant, defining a society and its culture. In Europe, the High Middle Ages saw the rise of a ‘chivalrous society’ of knights and serfs.

The Reformation pitched one faith against another. In the nineteenth century, a commercial society gave way to an industrial class society of capitalists and wage workers. Work remains important today, but it defines us far less than in the heyday of the factory and the trade union. Instead of warriors or workers, we are more than ever before consumers.

In the rich world  – and in the developing world increasingly, too  – identities, politics, the economy and the environment are crucially shaped by what and how we consume. Taste, appearance and lifestyle define who we are (or want to be) and how others see us. Politicians treat public services like a supermarket of goods, hoping it will provide citizens with greater choice. Many citizens, in turn, seek to advance social and political causes by using the power of their purse in boycotts and buycotts. Advanced economies live or die by their ability to stimulate and maintain high levels of spending, with the help of advertising, branding and consumer credit. Perhaps the most existential impact is that of our materially intensive lifestyle on the planet. Our lifestyles are fired by fossil fuels. In the twentieth century, carbon emissions per person quadrupled. Today, transport and bigger, more comfortable homes, filled with more appliances, account for just under half of global CO2 emissions. Eating more meat has seriously disturbed the nitrogen cycle. Consumers are even more deeply implicated if the emissions released in the process of making and delivering their things are taken into account. And, at the end of their lives, many broken TVs and computers from Europe end up in countries like Ghana and Nigeria, causing illness and pollution as they are picked apart for precious materials.

How much and what to consume is one of the most urgent but also thorniest questions of our day. This book is a historical contribution to that debate. It tells the story of how we came to live with so much more, and how this has changed the course of history.

Age of Ideologies

She was just nineteen and lucky to be alive. Heidi Simon had been born the year Hitler came to power. Frankfurt am Main, her hometown, was among the cities worst hit by Allied bombing; the 1944 raids killed thousands and left half the population homeless. Now, in 1952, Heidi was one of the winners in an amateur photography competition to celebrate the American Marshall plan. Recovery had barely begun. The entries reflected the harsh realities of post-war Europe: ‘Bread for all’; ‘No more hunger’; ‘New homes’. She scooped one of the top prizes: a Vespa moped plus prize money. The officials at the Ministry for the Marshall Plan may well have been surprised by her response. She was very happy about winning but, she wrote, to be honest and without trying to sound ‘impertinent’, she wondered whether she could not rather have a Lambretta than a Vespa. For the entire last year she had ‘passionately’ longed for a Lambretta. The Ministry refused and sent her the Vespa.

This snapshot of young Heidi Simon, tucked away in the German federal archives, is a reminder of how the large forces of history intersect with the material lives and dreams of ordinary people. The Marshall Plan was a critical moment in the reconstruction of Europe and the advancing Cold War divide between East and West, but its recipients were far from passive. Heidi’s outspoken desire for a particularly stylish consumer good in the midst of rubble also challenges the conventional idea that consumer society was the product of galloping growth in the age of affluence, the mid-1950s to 1973. It jars with the sometimes instinctive assumption that people turn to goods only for identity, communication or sheer fun after they have fulfilled their basic needs for food, shelter, security and health.

It is no coincidence that this psychological model of the ‘hierarchy of needs’, initially proposed by the American Abraham Maslow in 1943, gained in popularity just as affluence began to spread. According to this theory, Heidi Simon should have asked to trade in the Vespa for bricks and mortar and perhaps some savings bonds, rather than hoping for an upgrade to the 123cc Lambretta with its sleek single-piece tubular frame.

Imperial History and Film Culture

Cross posted from Imperial and Global Forum

three roads to tomorrow (1958)
Screenshot from the BP-sponsored Nigerian documentary ‘Three Roads to Tomorrow’ (1958), available for viewing at the Colonial Film Project.

David Thackeray
University of Exeter

What value do film culture sources have for historians of imperial history and how do we locate them? Readers of this forum (or at least those based in the UK) are likely to be familiar with the AHRC Colonial Film project but many key sources for the study of imperial film remain obscure to those outside film studies circles.

Media History Digital Library is perhaps the most useful resource for considering the culture of world cinema-going in the colonial era. Building on the resources of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a host of other collections, this site offers a range of film magazines from across the world as well as key pieces of government legislation.

Cinema St. Andrews provides access to various digitised resources, including a full run of the Colonial Film Unit’s magazine Colonial Cinema.

For historians of the Francophone world ina.fr the website of the Institut national de l’audiovisuel is an invaluable resource, with a range of free-to-access online films.

Some key national film collections are now accessible by Youtube including a collection of National Film and South Archive of Australia movies, films held by Archives New Zealand and the National Film Board of Canada. Recently theBritish Movietone archive also became available online.

Those with an interest in the changing culture of cinema-going in the early twentieth century may also be interested in the Object Stories series curated by the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum and University of Exeter.




In my own teaching, I use colonial film to think about the changing trade relationship between Britain and its empire during the mid- twentieth century. As the Youtube clip above demonstrates, the ways in which west Africa was presented in non-fiction film changed dramatically over time- with the growth of interest in promoting colonial development in the late 1940s and eventual decolonisation in the late 1950s.

Students are split into groups and given a film from the Colonial Film archive to consult. One of the things that they find most surprising is the range of groups which are using film to present stories of changing imperial trade relationships: British companies such as Cadburys and BP, as well as colonial and Dominion governments.

One of the comments that crops up most is the relationship between the Orientalising discourses of colonial film and modern day attempts to promote trade. Opinion is divided on how successful advertising campaigns such as Cadbury’s ‘Zingolo’ (2009) are at evading the motifs of earlier presentations of west Africa in colonial film. However, what is clear is that this legacy remains significant to the present day.*



* Readers may be interested in following the ongoing efforts on Bristol Record Office to recatalogue and maintain the former collections of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, which formed an important facet of the Colonial Film project.

Imagining Markets 2nd workshop- report

2nd workshop, London, September 2015- report

Cross-posted from Imperial and Global Forum

Senate House has featured in many guises from being the supposed model for the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984 to Bertie Wooster’s New York apartment block in the TV adaptation of Jeeves and Wooster. This month it played host to the second of three academic workshops connected to the AHRC Imagining Markets network led by David Thackeray, Andrew Thompson and Richard Toye from the University of Exeter. You can read more about the project atwww.imaginingmarkets.com.

We began by discussing how the idea of economic imagination can shape our understandings of political economy, and how this cultural idea has various facets (imaginings of economic utopias/ dystopias; entrepreneurship; the imagining of status and aspiration). Papers focused on how a variety of actors shaped ideas of the economic future and interconnected through networks at the level of government and the ‘official mind’; business groups; cultural organisations; advertisers; and civil society.

Richard Huzzey discussed Mid-Victorian liberal concerns with the need to morally regulate the economy while promoting market freedoms, noting that the idea of the moral economy being the antithesis of the market economy is problematic. The concept of the ‘night watchman state’, which subsequently came into common use in the 1950s, can be traced back to 1862.

Andrew Dilley explored the culture of business networking within the Federation of Chambers of Commerce of the Empire. Established as a body connecting British businessmen with their colleagues in the ‘settler colonies’, it attempted to appeal to audiences in the New Commonwealth after 1945, with limited success. The demise of this body highlights the increasing problems of imagining the Commonwealth as a coherent market by the 1960s and 1970s.

Stephanie Decker outlined the different structures of investments and practices by British, German and American companies in West Africa at the end of empire. The paper suggested the importance of institutional structures in shaping economic imagination. Government support for business abroad and practices of export credits and political risk guarantees played an important role in shaping the conduct of business in the region.

Andrew Smith explored the politics of British external representation in West Africa between 1957-67 (through the BBC and British Council) and how it competed with the rival efforts of other nations (particularly France). British efforts at encouraging foreign opinion formers to ‘think British’ were shaped with wider concerns with reimagining Britain’s economic position in decolonising Africa and countering Francophone opposition to Britain’s efforts to join the EEC.

Anandi Ramamurthy explored the development of fairtrade politics after the establishment of the Max Havelaar Foundation in 1992. The paper considered the relationship between the commodification of the Global South in colonial advertising and contemporary fairtrade campaigns, highlighting the importance of how cultural imaginings of trade relationships embed concepts of race, gender and labour.

Francine McKenzie gave the plenary which focused on the re-establishment of trade relationships between Britain, the Commonwealth, and America after 1945 through the creation of GATT. The paper considered the popular culture of imperial preference and why it became a sticking-point for British negotiators in 1947. By this time, the Commonwealth trade relationship had come to represent a degree of certainty for British politicians, which was lacking in many other markets.

Discussion was lively throughout the day. A key theme that was highlighted was the need to consider how imagined economic futures related to experienced and/or (mis-)remembered economic pasts. The final academic workshop (focused on British trade relations with China), and an accompanying witness seminar will take place in Cambridge in April 2016.

Film, trade and empire workshop, Exeter, June 2015 report

Film, trade and empire workshop, Exeter, June 2015 report


A very receptive audience for a tour of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum with Phil Wickham!


It was a pleasure to recently welcome a range of experts to discuss aspects of the depiction of empire and trade in British and French film culture in collaboration with the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. Tom Rice (St. Andrews) kicked off proceedings with a paper which discussed the role of film in imperial education in the UK considering the significance of the Empire Marketing Board and British Instructional Films, as well as figures such as William Sellers and Mary Field, in promoting colonial instructional films. As Rice notes, such figures are often overlooked- with significantly more critical attention paid to (atypical) ‘prestige’ films such as Grierson’s Drifters. Patrick Russell (BFI) explored the changing culture of industrial films over the longue duree highlighting connections between documentary networks and trade. Russell the need for more study of the relationship between industrialists and film-makers in understanding the production of these films. Furthermore, he highlighted the importance of the ‘golden age’ of industrial film production between 1945 and the early 1970s and the challenges of understanding how such films became ‘Africanised’ through processes of decolonisation and the internationalisation of production.


Bill Douglas CInema Museum exhibition, Exeter
Bill Douglas CInema Museum exhibition, Exeter

Image from current exhibition on empire and trade at the BDCM curated by our SCP intern Katy Moon


The second panel focused on film-making in Southern Africa. Jacqueline Maingard (Bristol) explored the idea of the ‘colonial imaginary’ in Donald Swanson’s films, considering the networks he operated in within Britain and eastern and southern Africa, and how they affected his depiction of race and colonial space. Emma Sandon (Birkbeck) focused on documentary films produced in South Africa between the 1920s and 1940s, exploring the role of African Film Productions in promoting trade with Britain. Sandon considered the various audiences for such documentary films, both in Britain but also in South Africa where they played an important role in promoting an English-speaking South African identity at a time of Afrikaner cultural revival.


In the final panel David Thackeray (Exeter) discussed the connections between imperial documentary film networks and the rise of internationalist development projects in the 1940s, focusing on the activities of John Grierson and Norman McLaren at UNESCO. Berny Sebe (Birmingham) offered comparisons between the depiction of French and British imperial heroes in film culture during the inter-war years, and Will Higbee (Exeter) explored ideas of imperial memory and the problematic nature of the colonial past in contemporary France through a study of Rachid Bouchareb’s Hors-la-loi (2010) and its popular reception.


Over the course of the day, a number of common themes emerged such as-


  • the importance of non-fiction educational/trade films and their relevant neglect in academic literature
  • the need to interrogate more thoroughly issues of circulation and viewership (in imperial networks) in terms of understanding the reach and appeal of individual documentary productions, but also the very varied practices of viewership (particularly in colonial contexts)
  • the contested nature of the ‘colonial imaginary’ in film-making, and the need to interrogate the role of the film-maker and industrial/ government sponsors in shaping film production
  • the value of using documentary film sources to understand ideas of ‘imperial modernity’ (eg. promoting modern techniques of industry, agriculture and education)
  • the value of these sources for understanding processes of decolonisation and nation forming


The workshop was accompanied by an exhibition curated by Katy Moon which will provide a basis for teaching with Exeter WP Residential and International Summer School classes and is currently on display at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum.


David Thackeray